Unlike most other entertainment platforms, video games can connect people of all backgrounds and beliefs. When people engage in play of any kind, they are asked to take on a perspective that might be unfamiliar to them. Video games now provide the platform for this authentic, collaborative play that broadens perspectives and builds new communities by connecting people who may otherwise have never met.
Today, the average gamer has been playing for 14 years. They have grown up with the industry and evolved alongside it. Just as video games have become richer, fuller and more well-rounded, so too have the communities that play them and those communities are only becoming more inclusive and accessible.
The current video game audience is largely split down the middle when it comes to men and women (54% vs 46%). In the US, it covers all political viewpoints and includes Democrats (37%), Republicans (33%), independents (18%) and others (12%). They like different sorts of games but also find they have genres in common, and they regularly play with (and against) people from other countries who might not even speak their native language. These new connections increasingly allow players to put themselves in the shoes of others, helping to foster greater sympathy and compassion.
All of this subtly lays the framework for players to recognize that even if people are miles apart on the political or geographical scale, they have more in common with each other than is immediately apparent. Knowing that helps to build empathy, which is the first step in bridging the gaps that separate us.
Games possess more than just the power to connect us emotionally. Today, some 63% of adult players play with others, often in squads that get together both online or in person. Brought together by servers and matchmaking algorithms, these strangers quickly learn how to work together to achieve a common goal.
This one mechanic has led to an explosion in the popularity of esports, creating new social elements and opportunities to participate in video game culture. Players in teams of all genders, ages, nationalities and abilities come together to compete for a shared victory, helping engender empathy and compassion for their teammates, while growing communication skills and connections. Esports also builds a community of fans who gather online to watch and discuss tournaments or those who attend in person, often traveling long distances to sit in the stands with strangers, bonding over their shared fandom for teams or players.
Video games – increasingly through VR and AR technologies – are also an equalizer for people with varying physical abilities. These are only a few examples of the innovation the industry has driven:
- A 2008 study found that one out of five casual video game players had a physical impairment of some sort. Advocacy groups, like AbleGamers, a non-profit that helps players with disabilities better enjoy gaming, has worked with developers and publishers to create modified controllers and special technology to assist people with accessibility issues;
- For its part, Microsoft launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018, helping people with limited mobility play games on that system;
- Sony released a PS4 system update in 2015 that included text-to-speech, button remapping and a larger font. The Tobii eye-tracking peripheral lets people control on-screen action through eye movements.
All of these developments have allowed more people to play more games however they need to; the community is expanding in all directions.
This ability of video games to connect and build community enables them to be a larger force for social good. Lual Mayen, a South Sudanese refugee who grew up in war-torn parts of that country, is now a video game developer and CEO of Junub Games in the US. He uses his life experiences to make games that focus on peace-building and conflict resolution. His latest game is Salaam, where players live the life of a refugee, avoiding bombs, finding water and searching out energy points, as they journey from a warzone to a peaceful life. On top of all that, any money players spend in the game benefits actual refugees thanks to Junub’s partnerships with charity organizations.
Games for Change is actively developing a community around games from an industry perspective. For more than 17 years, the not-for-profit has been building a community of practice around the premise that games as a medium can be a powerful driver for social change. Games for Change supports game creators and social innovators to improve their communities and learn through gameplay, hosting events like the XR Brain Jam, a hackathon that pairs researchers and game developers to create new applications for health. The annual Games for Change Festival includes a focus on health and wellness, various civic and social issues and games for learning. It brings together practitioners from diverse fields such as technology, media, government, academia, research and education who want to use this medium to make the world a better place.
The Games for Change Student Challenge teaches students how to design games that are rooted in social issues, promoting the acquisition of 21st-century skills – especially empathy, collaboration, creativity and communication – and empowers youth to become socially conscious, digital storytellers. When young people are cast in the role of designers, games arguably become one of the most influential storytelling mediums for youth. Giving young people the opportunity to express themselves through games helps them become “macro-minded citizens” with increased “empathy and understanding of diversity.”
These soft, cognitive skills help to better prepare these young players for healing the schisms that have arisen in this increasingly fragmented world. They build communities among players and fans, bringing together people from disparate cultures, beliefs and ages, who learn that – despite their differences – they still have a lot in common.
In an age that often feels more divided than ever, video games are enabling us to connect with others in new ways that feel familiar, while providing a path forward to reimagine the intersection of play, the power of communities and the significance of social impact.
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